Of Judgment & Serpents
(Note: I had hoped to post this around noon today, but did not finish in time. Second installment to come...)
Coming up on two years ago I made passing mention in this space of desert islands and what one might take to such places. I was preparing to buckle down for what turned out to be an important episode of work in the desert of Southeastern Utah. What would I take with me as nourishment? Brief entries on the subject here and here.
The question has returned, in a more pointed way. I’ll explain why.
I’ve made mention of the seminar I am teaching this semester, Readings in Postwar American Visual Culture 1945-1965. In fact, a little over a month ago I posted some Norman Rockwell images for the class alongside an introductory discussion of Greenberg’s Avant-Garde and Kitsch. (For GT background, see Avante-Garde and Twitch, here.) The purpose of that session was to grapple with that essay as well as Toward a Newer Laocoön, in some ways the more relevant text for coming to grips with the aesthetic claims of modernism.
Before proceeding, an aside I cannot resist: the Laocoön of Greenberg’s title is a reference to an 18th century essay by the German critic Lessing, which itself makes reference to a mythological tale of woe, memorably captured in a Hellenistic sculpture which has been projected in every single art history class to ever address Greek statuary. (Shown at the top of this post.) Laocoön, a local priest, smells a rat when the Trojan horse is wheeled into place. He suspects it’s hollow, and hurls a spear to confirm the fact. Athena, sponsor of the Greeks, wants no part of this fellow. Before the skeptical Trojan can open his mouth, sea serpents leap from the foam and slither over to strangle the man and his two sons on the spot. Not, one might think, a subject for marble. A tour de force, a spasm of energy chipped into being. Lives at the Vatican. And for present purposes, serves as the straight man to....
...this still from a Mr. Peabody short on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Mr. Peabody is a time-traveling professorial dog with a pet boy, Sherman. Beneath the banner of “Improbable History” check out Mr. Peabody as Laocoön, easily handling the snake. The statue seems to be labeled “a coon” unless you know the title, the beginning of which bends around the base away from us. Pretty doggone smart, and funny, too.
Our discussion on the appointed day fell flat. That Greenberg and other full-throated modernists would have rejected popular works should surprise no one, and in fact did not. In preparation for that session, I wrote:
Greenberg argues that images like these are examples of “ersatz culture, pictures offered up to those who [are] insensible to the values of genuine culture.” True? False? What’s the difference between genuine culture and other culture? If you have answer to that question, how would you apply it to the stuff referred to as “underground” music versus what you hear on mainstream radio?
I had expected to hear something adamant from enthusiasts and connoisseurs in some other area. But adamance did not make an appearance. Quite the contrary. To my students, the partisanship of the modernists seemed harsh, impossibly exclusive.
Is there no dimension of culture, your culture (I asked the students) for which you think right and wrong positions can be defined? The answer to this question assumed a technical form: that is, the five-paragraph essay is held to be the right way to compose one’s thoughts; strict page limits for screenplays are wisely observed. These answers (which fascinated me) do not hinge on values or arguments, but on consensus-oriented markers for qualitative acceptance. Recipes for “good writing” come sans moral or even vitally cultural content. Who'd start a fistfight over the five-paragraph essay?
Contemporary college students have been educated in a postmodern climate of bland but mandatory tolerance. Judgment is an extremely discomfiting word. Emotional perspectivism–feeling as a prequalification for analysis–has helped to devalue and discredit the act of judgment itself. I make this observation as someone who has argued against bogus judgments of quality that really mask categorical differences. I am neither a fetishist of judgment per se, nor a fundamentalist cloaked in aesthetic garb. Hardly!
That said, the analytical entropy of perfect tolerance does us no favors. (By us, I mean we who are producers of cultural products.) We may find ourselves adrift in shallow seas.
So: as a way of backing into to questions of judgment, somewhat on the fly I asked the class to compose a desert island packing list, to consist of the following: the visual output (say in a coffee table book, for practicality’s sake) of two artists, designers, illustrators, or cartoonists; the collected works of one writer (the anthologized so-and-so) or a single giant work of literature (e.g., the Bible, which someone ultimately chose, for non-religious purposes); and the discography of a single composer, performer or group. (I did not think to add film to the list, though I guess you could argue for it in the first category and I would probably yield).
I asked for these lists before the next class. As it happened, we had research presentations and a certain amount of historical material to work our way through, so we did not get to the discussion of these lists, which will be the material for today’s class. I will make a report, and also engage the group in a comment thread in this space for those who want to participate. The lists themselves are rather striking, and beg discussion. It promises to be a lively afternoon.
Meanwhile, I invite reader response. What would you pack in your suitcase?